Cabin fever

Cast and audience fly high together in Wickets.

FLIGHT OF STARES The cast welcomes you on Air Wickets.

FLIGHT OF STARES The cast welcomes you on Air Wickets.

Welcoming speeches at the theater don’t tend to involve reminders to buckle your seat belt and watch your knees and elbows—or sexy women walking down the aisles offering drinks and pillows, though those would be welcome at many a Broadway house. But in Wickets—their adaptation of Maria Irene Fornes’s 1977 experimental play about relationships amongst women, Fefu and Her Friends—Clove Galilee and Jenny Rogers are taking the audience on a real trip. They’ve turned the idea of site-specific theater on its head: Instead of customizing the production to a nontraditional location, they’ve created the entire location from scratch—and it happens to be a lovingly detailed plane, complete with a crew of eight stewardesses, that takes the viewers-cum-passengers on a flight from New York to Paris.

“We knew that in order to make Fefu contemporary, we were going to have to change its site,” Rogers says. “If you’re going to be true to what was so revolutionary about that play, you have to be true to the fact that in the wonderful second act, the theater gets split up and the audience gets divided in different rooms. So I was like, What’s a contemporary environment that isn’t a house but has these separate compartmental spaces and that would also include the idea of having this fraternity of women? It’s an airplane.”

Galilee and Rogers, who are in their thirties, not only transposed Fefu’s physical setting, but they also moved the time period from 1935 to the early ’70s. “Fornes was writing in 1977, looking back at her mother’s generation,” Galilee explains. “So we decided to look at our own 35-year gap, to 1971, our mothers’ generation and the birth of the second wave of feminism.” Thus the cast is in full period regalia, doling out magazines and pillows from under huge Aqua Net hair and polyesterrific uniforms. “I also wanted to find a site of contention,” Rogers adds. “What if we put the show a year before Ms. magazine started? You have that crest, but you’re not quite there. We could have set it later in the ’70s, and they would have been flight attendants not stewardesses.”

Considering their interest in gender and its artifices, it’s little surprise to hear that Galilee and Rogers met at Brown, which is also where they first encountered Fefu, in a class taught by Paula Vogel. Around ’97, Galilee—who had begun her arts training by studying with the Joffrey Ballet—asked Fornes for permission to do the play as a dance piece, but, as Rogers put it, “It started out being all about movement, then we were seduced back by the language.”

In an unfortunate nod to real-life air travel, Wickets’ taxiing to takeoff took quite a bit of time. Over the past three years, the pair received support from stalwart downtown institutions such as Mabou Mines (to which Galilee’s connection runs deep: She’s the daughter of cofounders Lee Breuer and Ruth Maleczech), INTAR Theatre and HERE, the latter of which presented five work-in-progress performances in December 2007. This led to a residency with the 3LD Art & Technology Center, which, among other perks, provided the sophisticated gear necessary to create an immersive environment incorporating HD projections and in-flight entertainment in the form of a video by Rogers. (The recent stock-market crash created one last hurdle when it wiped out half of Galilee and Rogers’s fund-raising efforts; they and the cast decided to forgo their fees rather than cancel the show.)

Working at 3LD also allowed the team to rehearse on the actual set—a 44-by-17-foot cabin that sits 65 people in first, business and coach classes. “The blocking, the gestures, the way lines are delivered—all of these things will be radically different depending on which part of the airplane you’re seated in,” explains Rogers. “Your experience of the play will differ depending on which stews are in your section. There’s tons of ad libs and asides.”

Dealing with, among other things, the management of emotions, Wickets has a heady intellectual side; but it also develops an intense, sometimes unsettling intimacy between the actors and the audience, which is necessarily small. “What really gets to me is that you’re right there with the performers,” says Kevin Cunningham, 3LD’s executive artistic director. “You’re not watching something on a stage over there, you’re in it.” Rogers doesn’t seem to mind the inherent limitations this causes: “People ask, 'When is it going to Broadway?’ And we say, 'Never.’ Never say never, but in this case...never. From the economic logic of theater, this show makes no sense.”

Wickets is at 3LD Sat 3--Jan 25.